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Running Tips

Your heart rate while running: How to use it for better runs

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The harder your body works, the higher your heart rate. It's a simple concept. But to take full advantage of your heart rate while running, you first have to figure out your heart's maximum rate. Then, you can track your heart rate for better runs.

Why is heart rate important?

Your heart rate, or pulse, is a measure of how many times your heart muscle contracts each minute. With each contraction, your heart pushes oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout your body — to every organ, tissue, and muscle. It also moves carbon dioxide and other byproducts out of your body and keeps everything humming along in rhythm. So the faster and harder your organs, tissues, and muscles work, the faster your heart has to beat, or pump, to keep up that rhythm.

Knowing your heart rate tells you exactly how hard your body's working at any point in your runs. When intensity goes up, so does your heart rate. When intensity goes down, so does your heart rate.

But here's the thing: When it comes to your heart rate while running, higher isn't always better. Running and jogging at different intensities comes with different heart rates — and benefits.

Low-intensity jogging and running builds muscular and aerobic endurance, something your heart and body can keep up for long periods of time. High-intensity running and sprinting, meanwhile, lets you do a ton of work in a short amount of time, and the human body can't keep it up for long before needing a break. Moderate-intensity running is the gray area in the middle; you're working and sweating at a pace that feels challenging, but doable.

So, what's your target heart rate?

To determine how hard you want your heart, and body, to work during any one workout, first pinpoint your maximum heart rate (MHR). This is how fast your heart can pump blood through your body and it's measured in beats per minute (BPM). An easy way to calculate it is with the following equation:

220 – your age = MHR

So, if you are 30 years old, your equation would look like this:

220 – 30 = 190 BPM

190 beats per minute is the estimated maximum heart rate.

From there, determine how hard you want to exercise. Low-intensity exercise is typically between 50–70% of your MHR, moderate-intensity is between roughly 70–85%, and high-intensity is anything over 85%.

Many digital watches and fitness trackers can monitor your heart rate while running. Keeping an eye on this number can help you ensure you're working at your intended intensity. Is your heart rate lower than your target? Try picking up the pace. Have you left your target in the dust? Slow your roll.

Runner checking his watch

3 tips for using your heart rate while running

1. Consider your MHR an estimate

The above equation gives you a rough idea of your heart's beating capacity, but doesn't factor in your biological sex, fitness level, or other health factors. All of these influence your MHR. Your actual max may be up to 15 or 20 beats higher or lower than your estimated one. For active adults, the HUNT Fitness Study equation, 211 – (0.64 x your age), may be more accurate.

2. Prioritize lower intensities

When getting started running, build a base with low-intensity jogging — meaning your heart rate is under 70% of your max while running. Then increase your speeds/distances by no more than 10% each week.

3. Mix in higher intensities with rest

When exercising above 70% of your MHR, your body needs recovery breaks. As you start to play with heart rates of 75, 80, and 85% of your MHR, add intervals of low-intensity jogging to help your heart recover. Try maintaining the high intensity for 30 seconds or a minute at a time. Slow back down, then, once your heart rate has returned to 50 or 70%, feel free to kick it up a notch with another medium to high-intensity interval.

Your heart rate is a powerful tool. Determine your maximum heart rate, and track it to train at the right running intensity for you and make the most of your runs.

Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.

Written By
K. Aleisha Fetters

Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist

Headshot of Aleisha Fetters

I'm a quirky (aka nerdy) strength coach with a passion for science and sweat. I love to help people meet their body goals, but it's their mental and emotional gains that make me do a happy dance. My flirtation with running includes two half marathons and, someday, I will run 26.2.